Here’s how beer ties into the Canadian identity

By Sarah Dziedzic - Published on Jul 15, 2016
Nam Kiwanuka discusses Canada's brewing past with history professor, Matthew Bellamy

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A man walks to a microphone at centre stage and clears his throat.

“I am not a lumberjack or a fur trader,” he says. “I don’t live in an igloo, or eat blubber, or own a dog sled. And I don’t know Jimmy, Sally or Suzie from Canada, although I’m certain they’re really, really nice.”

So begins the classic 60-second Molson Canadian commercial, “The Rant,” that became a rallying cry for Canadian identity shortly after it appeared in March 2000. Although Molson retired the “I am Canadian” tagline after a 2005 merger with U.S. beer company Coors, “the rant” continues to resurface on Canada Day, and Molson Coors Brewing Company still uses nationalism in its marketing campaigns.

Beer is the preferred alcoholic beverage of Canadians but as history professor Matthew Bellamy points out, linking beer to Canadian identity isn’t new and the reason is rooted in the country’s natural resources. Canada’s history and hops create the perfect cocktail for beer becoming both a consumer staple and a shortcut character descriptor. 

Bellamy, an associate professor of history at Carleton University, specializes in the history of brewing in Canada, and is a regular contributor to Taps: The Brewing Magazine. TVO.org asked him five questions about beer and Canadian identity.

What is it about beer that appeals to consumers’ Canadian identity?

Perhaps no nation is more blessed by nature when it comes to brewing than Canada. [It] has all the natural ingredients – barley, hops and fresh water – to produce a perfect pint. What’s more, there’s a rich tradition of brewing in this country that dates from the 1600s. Throughout the centuries, Canadians have produced some world-class beers. These factors make beer and brewing quintessentially Canadian. That is why beer appeals to the national identity and our sense of national pride.

When were beer and Canadian identity first solidified and used in beer marketing?

It depends, of course, on how you define the Canadian identity. During the 1920s a number of Canadians believed that the national identity lay in the land. The land was considered a sanctuary from the dangers and chaos of the modern urban world, and its products were seen as “natural” and “pure.” This back-to-the-land, anti-modern sentiment was seen in a variety of cultural manifestations of the period, from the paintings of the Group of Seven to the writings of Harold Adams Innis to the quest for a rustic fisher folk in Nova Scotia, to the creation of summer camps and national parks. Canada was a northern nation. The vastness and ruggedness of the land was something that distinguished it and defined the national character. The brewers tapped into the underlying cultural logic during the 1920s and 1930s to promote their products. They associated their beer with the land, thereby tying it to the national identity.

Has the link between beer marketing and Canadian identity changed since the Molson Canadian “rant?”

The marketing of the big breweries’ beer, particularly Molson and Labatt’s products, has not changed that much since the “rant.” These brewers still try to appeal to the national market. As a result, their marketing people seek to identity the social values of Canadians and cultural logic of the age.  The “rant” was successful because it tapped into the latent nationalism in the all-important 18-24-year-old drinking group.

How much of Canadian identity is bent on a disassociation with the United States?

National identities are always created, in part, in contrast to the “other.” That is to say, we define ourselves as much as by what we are not, as what we are. 

So when Molson Canadian and others market their beer as Canadian identity, are they in some ways whitewashing that identity?

There is no doubt about this. One of the long-standing criticisms of beer ads is that they do not reflect the true diversity of the Canadian nation, or beer drinkers for that matter. One of the first people to take the brewers to task on this matter was the late Canadian jazz great, Oscar Peterson. In the early 1980s, he criticized the lifestyle commercials of Canadian brewers as “setting the worst example of human relationships for anyone” and urged consumer to boycott the beer of the “big three”  – Molson, Labatt and Carling O’Keefe – in order to fight racism. The big brewers swore that they would do a better job at capturing the diversity of Canadian beer drinkers in the future. I think it is fair to say that there is still work to be done. 

 

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